It’s about one hundred years old and is attributed to Vladimir Iljitsch Lenin, the man who as an erstwhile revolutionary in Russia laid the groundwork for the totalitarian control system of Stalinism that followed him, a paranoid system that mistrusted everything and everybody and cost the lives of countless numbers of people.

Every control system is built on mistrust. Every good human community is built on trust. Sometimes mistrust is founded and necessary, sometimes it’s just plain wrong – so where do we draw the line? 

Certainty in uncertainty

It’s not always easy to do this, especially when faced with some specific situation. But it’s important that we do ask ourselves this question so that when push does come to shove and we are uncertain, we don’t automatically switch to the control mode – whether in personal relationships or in dealing with social matters. I can understand that many people now yearn for security and the type of controlling that comes with it. Yet the decisive question in this context is: when is control really appropriate and necessary for our communal life and when will it only be detrimental.

Self-control and self-confidence

I think that we need both of these elements – both trust AND control – when dealing with our lives. And for me this also includes self-control and self-confidence. After all, if you can’t even trust yourself, how can you possibly trust anyone else? And if you can’t even control yourself, how can you exercise any meaningful form of control over others? 

For many years I held an executive position in top management. Even back then I felt that there was no point in trying to control my co-workers. I knew that they all wanted to give their very best and that they could only do this by being trusted and by being provided with space for autonomous action and initiative. My job was not to control (to micro-manage???) their behaviour but to ensure that at the end of the day the right results came through. And in this way, working collectively, we were highly successful for many years. 

 People need to be trusted in order to develop their skills and abilities and act on their own initiative. This is something that parents raising kids should never forget. Yet unfortunately leadership through such oppressive, discouraging control systems in companies and organisations all too often destroys the very basis on which trust is built. These are often places where the mindset of the early 20th century still lingers on. 

Using control judiciously

The need for control goes hand-in-hand with the question of security and risk. Do I want assured quality in the food I eat? Of course I do! Do I want road and air traffic to be controlled for the well-being of the general public? Absolutely! Do I want to see that animals lead good lives and that my rubbish is properly disposed of? Naturally! Do I want assured compliance with climate protection goals? Yes indeed! 

So control in itself is nothing bad. Even so, it’s only the correct measure of control applied in the right places that makes it meaningful and useful. And this means that every single one of us – civil society as a whole but also government and commerce – still has a lot of rethinking to do. 

Especially in these times we’re confronted by a veritable chorus of demands for controls and prohibitions. What we need to do here is come together and examine them all with the greatest attention – and not immediately subscribe to the next proposal for control or prohibition. Sometimes control may be necessary. Yet sometimes it’s much better to follow the path of trust.  

Seeing the world with eyes wide open 

In my own life I’m anything but a control freak. But I’m also not a person who can blindly trust. I’m a precise observer who gathers her own impressions, examines and weighs what she thinks and then draws her own conclusions.  I’m alert and attentive in all kinds of situations and I don’t live my life along the lines of “trust once, trust always”. What I do try to do is to find the correct balance. 

And honestly – If I were to spend all my time suspiciously doubting everything around me and trying to control and do everything by myself, there’d be no more room in my life for all the great ideas and suggestions from other people which inspire me and bring me forward, and no more room for all those people I love to work with on a solid basis of trust. And that is something I would really miss. 

And in a combination of all these factors, we tend to overestimate the importance for us of what is big, loud and visible whilst simultaneously underestimating the importance for us of what is small, inaudible and invisible.

If we glance over the technological and industrial developments of the past 250 years and fix our attention particularly on the past twenty years, then these assertions assume a new and startling significance.

When I once spent several hours in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, my previous ideas about what was called the “First Industrial Revolution“ in Europe that took place in England 150-200 years ago and then spread were placed on a totally new footing by what I saw and learnt there.

Gigantic machines many meters high and many meters long, driven first by steam then by electric power, were lined up one against the other in the vast Power Hall. They are selected well-preserved examples representative of hundreds of their kind that were increasingly deployed in the wave of new factories that sprang up at that time.

What thoughts and feelings must the sight of such machines have evoked in the people of the 19th century who had never seen anything even remotely comparable to them before? People who up to then had lived by their own manual labour – whether working in the fields, in their own workshops or in manufacturing. How alien and how terrifying their first encounters with these monstrous clanking clattering machines must have been and how long it must have taken before people became accustomed to this new substance in their lives – not to mention the changes in their work and lives such machines brought with them which even today are still subsumed in the expression “Manchester Capitalism”.

This was radical brutal change. But above all else it was change that could be substantially apprehended by our physical senses. Change that, because it was visible, loud and large scale, could be apprehended by the human sensory system as it has developed over countless millennia. An enormous steam engine was recognisable for exactly what is was.

Today we stand on the threshold of another revolution determined by a new type of technology and machine which are no longer the huge self-evident monsters hissing steam, radiating heat and locking us into their rhythms. They are algorithms, invisible, inaudible yet immensely powerful mechanisms for which our sensory systems are not equipped to deal. Virtual worlds of no substance are emerging and at first glance we cannot recognise them for what they are. They don’t compel us, they seduce us. And so we stumble on from one snare to the next and yet still feel good, seeing ourselves as free beings living in a comfort zone.

Our species has created a world that lives from the shedding of substance. But what does that mean? Here we can call on Ludwig Wittgenstein from whose work the title of this blog is drawn: “If the world had no substance then whether a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true. It would then be impossible to form a picture of the world (true or false).” (From:Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 2.0211/2.0212).

When Paul Watzlawick was writing his brilliant book How Real is Real?  he had no notion of such a construction of reality. In a physically near imperceptible, very quiet, invisible yet immensely powerful way this new revolution is making us square up to the question of just how efficiently and how quickly can we develop and sharpen our system of sensory perception and our consciousness with the aim of dealing with these seemingly innocuous yet rapid currents of change in an intelligent and self-confident manner. The great confusion in which the real and the fake now contend is giving rise to an unprecedented loss of reality. Think of the Matrix film. Today there is no option other than that we continue to surrender information and data. Yet at the same time our knowledge and our awareness of such a development is expanding. And for as long as people are active in the game, no force will ever arise without producing its own counter-force.

The new age is still in its infancy. Its course will be set across the decades that lie before us.



Photo by Gerd Altmann, Public Domain (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universell))